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A bay of islands

OUT FROM THE shoreline of Brisbane lies a scattering of islands. Each particular, each with a feeling of its own, that in part comes from their topography.

The mostly long, stretched sand islands that run along the outer edge of Moreton Bay keep the worst of the buffeting tides from the Coral Sea from the shorelines and inlets of those that lie inside the protection of their lean white flanks. These are the white-beached sand islands with impossibly high, blazingly alabaster dunes that in some parts stretch all the way from the east to the west, blown by the off-shore winds into forms that are sinuous and lithe. They are supported on a sub-structure of volcanic bedrock onto which countless tiny individual grains have been carried ashore by the strong offshore currents over 750,000 years. Others tell of different origins – that the sand islands are remnants of the hidden landscape of southeast Queensland that the post-glacial marine transgression submerged some 18,000 years ago, and which, Atlantis-like, re-emerged in more recent times.

Whatever the truth, these are inordinately harsh lands – almost-impossible ecologies offering little sustenance – fluctuating moving terrains, punished by blowing sand, sun and salt. These sand islands are wildernesses of the most Australian kind. Unique to the ancient geology of this country, they have been claimed as world heritage sites. How strange, then, that they resonate, for me at least, with the highly acculturated, traditionally mediated landscapes of Japan, where each branch, each root, each detail is granted the potential weight of metaphor. In Japan certain rocks, trees, mosses are treated with reverential awe. The animist potential of Shinto helps, carry this valuing of the particular and unique nature of each phenomenon through from the deep past into the contemporary world.

Australia too, has been blessed with understanding the value of acknowledging a kind of haunting. Indigenous cultures have long recognised the potential of landscape to resonate with a spirit-value. And yet those who have entered this country more recently, experience so many aspects of the terrain of this country as a wall of muteness.

These sand islands harbour their own ghosts and numen. With a beauty made even more extreme through the palpable fragility of the various ecosystems, a series of codices appear to flit and disappear, as if the details of the place attempt to write back to those who find themselves estranged there.

The dunes of these islands are ineffable. And if trees or bushes deign to take root, it is as if they are permitted to do so with the unspoken insistence that they perform a kind of self-imposed bonsai – a process aided by the salt and the severe abrasion of the blown sand and the lack of nutrients in the otherwise mineral-rich sand. There are banksias and eucalypts on some of those dunes – miniature, dwarfed versions of their sisters that stand tall and proud only several metres leeward. The tiny trees are no less proud – they are perfectly formed, aged examples of the will to survive. And they are as incredibly beautiful as any rare thing. The reason they survive at all is due to a particular species of mycorrhizal fungi that is present in these dunes; the fungi slowly release nutrients in a form that can be absorbed by the plants, supporting life that would otherwise be impossible.

The shards of those trees that haven't survived are, from time to time, uncovered by a change in wind direction, revealing forms that have been tirelessly sculpted by the blown sand – rhythmic, sensuous, and at times wafer-thin. In the little dints and hollows of the dunes there are other treasures – coughed-up detritus from the gullets of kestrels and kites – crab-claws and tiny bones, shell-fish and parts of cuttlefish that lie in the pockets formed by the wind like miniature treasure-troves from an aerial pirate's lair. In other hollows are drawings of calligraphic fineness that come into especial clarity when the light hits parallel to the bellies of the dunes. Here there are traces of birds walking, or crabs wandered too far from the ocean's edge, or marsupial scat, or the persistent turnings of the grass eclipsing the orbit of the wind.

The grass on these dunes is silver-green; covered with a light-reflective down of baby-hair that renders the thin spikes hardier. As a colour, as a surface, this grass appears feminine and alluring enough to adorn Marie Antoinette's boudoir – infinitely subtle pastel shades and silkiness. And yet here it is, toughest of the tough, protecting the fragility of these remarkable dunes from the age-old roll-in from the Pacific.

The dunes are always on the move – you can almost watch them breathe and change. They throw up patches of golden wetness and then a whole new mini-ecosystem temporarily metamorphoses into being –the surprise of button-grass marshes marked out by the upside-down exclamation marks of the species; the iridescent green trail of weed in the brackish water; the pigface – glaucescens – that survives this eternally shifting ground, creeps and thrives and throws up surprising areolas of magenta and lavender amidst the fleshy watery roseate glow of its fingers. And then that watering spot is gone again. Completely gone. Covered under the silence of the sand as if it never even existed.

Brakes of closely clustered bushes – banksias and ti-trees – bear witness, but remain silent. In the deep hollows below the wind line they duck for cover. Only the feral pig-tunnels amidst the lantana thickets and the little hollows sheltering the flitting small honey-eaters suggest other comings and goings; the animals and birds seek out new pathways to different soaks, and the contours of the dunes change again. From the vantage-point of these hollows no other sky can ever seem so blue. Below the insistence of the wind the silence is a slab, the sky is a slab, the dunes are a slab and the rest is tiny, finely tuned detail – all sounds are clearer, and the etching of shadows throws entire complex tanglings of thought into momentary clarity.

Now companies market these dunes as grounds for sport. They're tobogganing territory. Great fun. People careen off them with whoops. They leave behind shards of cardboard and bits of ply and they too, through time will become part of these places.

 

ON THE LEE side of these islands the dunes run down to tidal sand-flats fringed by mangroves. They smell as rich as fetid soup at low tide, when exposed shellfish and molluscs pop and clack amidst the flattened tresses of seagrass. Black mangrove roots spike upwards like rubbery, barnacled jags of torture, all protectively clustered in meandering root-lines spanning out from the mother-tree. Beneath the deeper roots, where the sand is most blackly rich and smelly, there are crabs. Big muddies. And further out, swimmer-crabs, skeltering along sideways, pincers up, defiant to the end.

Low tide leaves the shoreline cicatrised by the tiny gouges running between millions of technically perfect sand-ball orbs. These carpets of infinite detail are recreated every day by armies of soldier crabs. Each encased in brilliant purple and blue round carapaces, individually they appear like perfectly formed confectionary coated in a light glaze of sugar. But their flawless appearance belies the industriousness of their being – they work and move as a team – as a single entity comprised of many, focussed entirely on working their way into the surface, digging, rolling, continuing to produce what looks lake a labour of infinite love before the tide turns again. A legion of tiny sculptors bent on embellishing nature, their endless activity transforms the flat expanses of low-tide beaches to enormous drawings of intense detail.

Some say the change in seasons in these parts is best ascertained by the migratory movements of fish and birds. Out on the eastern beaches, where the surf belts in, the arrival of winter is marked by the schools of tailor that follow the gar and pilchard shoals in from the deeper waters to follow the contours of the surf beaches. Tailor are a fighting fish; they hunt in packs and become infected by bloodlust when a 'run' is on, throwing themselves at any silver glinting thing and then hurling their muscled bodies through the pounding surf in vain attempts to throw off the lures of fishermen.

When the big seas churn up the beaches, the sands are littered with flotillas made up of the fat transparent sails of the Portuguese Men of War. Best to step around the blue trails, loaded with nematocysts that fire well after they have landed ashore. The entire thing is a colony that appears like a creature. The air-filled bladder catches the currents and winds, other unicellular organisms cling to the tendrils to perform other roles, some cells sting and kill tiny organisms, some ingest and others deal with reproduction. The level of organised specification, of duty so physiologically integrated, permits the entire colony to function. Even knowing all that it isn't any easier to like them, while admiring such a highly developed level of collegiality. Their little cousins – nudibranchs – also washed up during the high seas, are much more visually appealing, like tiny naked blue and white puppies small enough to fit on a fingernail, their vulnerability heightened by the fact that they are actually a post-larval stage of a marine mollusc without a protective shell. Like their name, which refers to the exposed nature of their gills, they appear very naked and soft with their little fat appendages spread out like swollen fingers.

 

THE DARKER SPOTTED winter whiting follow similar watery pathways as the tailor, or congregate in deeper, warm lee-side spots west of the big sand dunes of Moreton Island like Blue Hole. Further up from this fishing spot, in the crystal-clear shallows that run along the edge of the dunes, is an area locally known as 'The Bedroom' – a tidal nursery for juvenile wobbegongs and rays. Wading through these waters there is little to mark their presence, as they lie semi-covered by the warm sand they flick over their flat mottled bodies. Sometimes the only tell-tale sign is the straighter contour of a tail, or the knobs of eyes. They lie there, doggo, leaving it until the last minute to shoot away in a flurry of sand. More sinister are the stonefish that lie hidden in the grass of the mangrove forests; sullen and skulking, confident their poison will ward off even the most persistent intruders.

The bushlands of these long sand-dune islands harbour ancient belts of Xanthorrhoea – slow-growing grass-trees that seasonally throw up the tall spikes that were valued by the local Aborigines as fishing spears. They ooze and drip the slow rich red resin that was also so prized as a sticky fixing compound. And there are brakes and belts of scribbly gums – stands of trees where calligraphic detail seems bewilderingly complex and coherent.

Once Laurie Anderson's Sharkey laconically groaned – All of nature talks to me. If I could just figure out what it was trying to say. Well before Sharkey the first non-indigenous invaders to the shorelines were faced with the same perplexing conundrum in Sydney Cove, when botanists argued over the origins of the distinctive marks decorating the trunks of some eucalypts.

The drawings seem to erupt from the inner skin of the trees, as if being pushed out by an inner life. Which of course is true. The drawings are produced by the larvae of small species of feathery-winged moths that lay their eggs in late autumn. During the colder months, the little larvae wriggle and write as they slowly grow under the warm photosynthetic blankets of the bark's skin. And the trees proudly bear evidence of their own cross-species custodianship like tribal tattoos.

Elsewhere forests of paperbarks mark the presence of swamps and waterways. Huddled like groups of shredded, patched itinerants, the trees stand together in mute groups up to their knees in water or sometimes in sand that covers the subterranean marshes and water-tables. The soft, powdery, flesh-toned bark sloughs off in untidy rags, revealing the knolls and knots and ropey, sinewy chords that lie beneath. And she-oaks gather in such places too – each linear filament of their leaves tracing its line downwards, so much like the tears of rain in a Hokusai woodcut – or perhaps the spilling hair of an Edo courtesan. The gender-specific nature of their title seems so well considered. Beneath the grey-green fall of their foliage, they scatter their carpet of soft needles and sharp round seeds, each an orb marked by rows of open-beaked seed-pods.

On these islands ringed by saltwater the freshwater lakes and springs and waterways seem all the more miraculous. There are perched lakes and mirror lakes; subterranean aqueducts; creeks and flowing streams and magical springs; and in the wet the sweet water seeps and trickles from the flanks of the soil in places unexpected. The clarity of some of these bodies of water comes from its high acidity and the fact that, as a result, no nutrients can grow and decompose. Immersed to the waist, you can look down and trace each contour of the bottom's details beneath the perfect reflection of the sky.

Others are stained in tones that run to a rich blood red in the sloping rays of the sun. The colours come from the tannins leeched from the wallum swamps and ti-tree forests. Lined by sedges and reeds, these lakes change with the slightest shift in the breeze or the cloud-cover or the light of the day. They are highly mutable surfaces, whispering and impassive. Even when their shorelines are peppered with holidaymakers, they maintain an aloof reservation – a kind of benign off-handedness, as if their beauty could never be contained or exhausted or fully comprehended. And yet they, too, are highly fragile.

Along these waterways pockets of rainforest have managed to thrive in nothing but sand. Fringed by wallum heath, the reason the lakes survive is open to conjecture. Some say that beneath the silent stillness of the waters, the sand-rock beds of the lakes are lined by an accumulation of organic matter through which water is unable to escape. Others say that some of the lakes are fed by underground aquifers that run all the way across to the mainland, in channels that run deep beneath the saltwaters of Moreton Bay. If this is true, it is possible to imagine these pristine waters flowing every night from the high country in Helidon, where the healing properties of these streams seeping from ancient artesian sandstone spas were long recognised by the local Jagera people. Beneath the velvety night skies, beneath the saltwater waterways of the Bay, beneath the milky white bellies of the grazing dugongs and the rhythmic sway of the sea-grass beds, the crystal clear waters shimmer and tumble their way along the deep meandering tunnels and out finally into the silence of the Island's perched lakes. Some speak of such things. The truth can only at times be guessed at obliquely. Even when science and history stutter and falter, these places hold their mute spell.

 

IN THE LEE of these rangy white sand islands, the inner islands of Moreton Bay are more nuggetty – reefs and ruddy rocks that are so much part of the brilliantly coloured red soils of the mainland. The sand is darker and the contours less elongate. They lie tumbled across the Bay like irregular gems. Some bear names that hark back to the languages of the original inhabitants – Coochiemudlo, Perulpa, Karragarra. Others have been branded with new names – Russell, Macleay, Lamb. Then there is the haunting and haunted Peel, an island-lazaret, a place of seclusion and silence, and St Helena, a place of incarceration, where convicts hewed stones for their own confinement from the island's substrata. St Helena was renamed in 1826 after an Indigenous man known as Napoleon was exiled there. This island's epithet reflects the dark, unsettling aspects of history laced with an equally dark, irreverent humour.

Linked together offshore as a scattered grouping, each island nevertheless carries a particularity of its own. Some seem sullen, sulky; others animated and in tune with a more uplifting tempo; yet others seem seeped in pasts of sorrow and longing. Each of them is fringed by intertidal mangrove forests and ringed by rich black mudflats that harbour abundant marine ecosystems. Each is a part of wetlands that are sustained by the careful balance of terrestrial and marine life.

So many of the hardy species that survive and thrive here do so within the harrowing ecological demands of the littoral zones – the passages of land/water that exist between the high tide and low tide lines – places where migratory birds rest. At night on these islands the eastern curlews call to the moon, retelling mournful travel tales of far-away homes in Mongolia and Siberia. The largest of the sandpipers, they congregate along the marshlands and the mudflats, methodically searching for hidden molluscs and shellfish with deliberate repetitive movements by their long, scimitar shaped beaks. They are sober little birds, arriving on these shorelines in the winter and leaving in the heat of summer for the long journey north.

Curlews are special on these islands. The larger bush curlew, or thick-knee curlew, is easily identified by the size of its huge yellow eyes. By day the wideness of their gaze makes them transfixing – their stare is level and piercing, the dilation of the pupils suggests a secret life. Their night cries reiterate these suspicions -across the inner Bay islands the eerie wailing calls of the bush curlews suggest tales better imagined than understood.

The vocabulary of their calls is not limited to this mournful territory-calling; they also whistle, hiss and shriek, cluck and chuckle, growl and gargle. Yet Bay residents tell of more urbane characteristics; they praise the extreme dedication of these unusual birds to their chicks, describing how groups of these birds assemble to dance and call out around the hatching of a vulnerable, ground-nested egg. They also tell of strange choreographed bobbings and bowings by entire groups of birds, performances of wing extensions and sequenced manoeuvrers that are often sustained over lengthy periods of time. The birds seem to have permitted the human inhabitants of the island a part in this ongoing enactment; they have adapted to backyards and semi-urban situations with the patient tolerance of royalty, moving in stately, measured paces as they survey the territory that runs between the verandas and kitchens of their human trespassers and the semi-wild bushland that has always been theirs.

Birds are abundant in these inner island ecosystems – the air is filled with their calls. In blossom time the air is heavy with honeysuckle. Honey-eaters and lorikeets screech with Dionysian abandonment as they clamber and blunder for nectar amidst the banksia and gumnuts. And from time to time the much more rare glossy black cockatoo deigns to put in an appearance. In drier times white cockatoos and pink galahs shamble like yobbos among the grasslands, and show off like larrikins along the limbs of the eucalypts.

This easy-going devil-may-care-ness is what severs any resonances such places might have with the landscapes of more mediated cultures from the northern hemisphere. The birds, the marsupials of these islands comport themselves with a kind of reckless custodianship that suggests irreverence. It is as if their possession of these magnificent, haunting and haunted places is accepted as a given; with a grace so casual that it verges on the wanton. And it is an attitude that has seeped like osmosis from the creatures of the country right through and into the marrow of so many of us who have moved here.


From Griffith Review Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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